National Academic Standards Have Produced a Lot of Nothing

National Academic Standards Have Produced a Lot of Nothing
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We all want students to succeed, so the publication of national test results naturally launches a scramble to interpret the scores and figure out what is and is not working.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released the latest Nation’s Report Card, documenting results from the standardized reading and math tests taken every two years by 4th and 8th grade students. In both subjects, the national average scores remain essentially unchanged from 2015 for both grades (with the exception of a 2-point improvement in 8th grade reading). National average scores have now remained steady for more than a decade.   

Lawmakers who pour billions of taxpayer dollars into district schools every year should pause to consider the implications. 

First, supporters of the Common Core national academic standards have some explaining to do. As early as 2012, some said national standards could potentially improve the performance of U.S. students” in math. Others said the standards would help narrow the achievement gaps.” 

Neither has happened. Indeed, the latest results show a widening achievement gap. Students at the top end of the scale are scoring higher and those at the bottom are scoring lower than when the Common Core standards were first adopted.  

A more rigorous evaluation is needed to say the Common Core is the reason for the disappointing results. But the lofty claims about national standards have not been realized.

Notably, between 2003 to 2011, almost every state showed improvement in math scores on the Nation’s Report Card. Some states even recorded double-digit gains. Reading test results evidenced similar gains, although not quite as pronounced.

Scores stalled and then took a turn after that. Between 2013 and 2017, only five jurisdictions logged improvements in 4th grade math, and just three in 8th grade math. 

Writing for Education Next, Senior Editor Paul Peterson notes a similar phenomenon when test results are broken out according to racial subgroups. Test score gains were substantially larger between 2000 and 2009 than from 2009 to 2017. 

Trying to explain these disappointing results, some have pointed to economic trends, blaming the 2013–2015 score drop on the 2007 recession and subsequent sluggish recovery. This explanation is problematic because math scores went up sharply between 2000 and 2003 — despite the 2001 recession (4thgrade readingscores also improved, though not quite as much). Scores also trended up after the recession in the early 1990s.

Inadequate funding is also likely not the culprit. Per student spending nationwide has increased since 2000.

One final caveat about these scores: Long-term trends are more important than the results from any one test. And whatever variations we see in 4th and 8th grade results disappear by 12th grade. In fact, 12th grade scores in math and reading have not changed since 1971. After decades of trying, Washington’s carousel of reform ideas and regular federal and state funding increases have not wrought any lasting improvement to the national average for students finishing high school.

Families and students do not need more of the same. State lawmakers should continue to look for ways to challenge students and help prepare them for the future through customized learning options like education savings accounts, now available in six states. Washington should do the same for students under their purview — such as those in military families.

And don’t forget charter schools, which are posting strong results in states like Arizona and MichiganPolicymakers should also make sure cumbersome regulations do not prevent successful schools from expanding.

In light of another round of disappointing national test scores, let’s hope efforts to give parents and children more opportunities in education continue trending in the right direction.

Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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